MARTHA’S VINEYARD, Mass., Sept 15 (Reuters) – Some residents of the wealthy liberal enclave of Martha’s Vineyard decried a move by Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to fly dozens of migrants to the vacation island as a political “stunt,” as local officials and volunteers scrambled to help the confused new arrivals.
DeSantis took credit for the two flights, which originated in San Antonio, Texas, according to data from flight tracking website FlightAware. Geoff Freeman, the Martha’s Vineyard airport director, said the flights were carrying around 50 migrants, mostly Venezuelans.
The high-profile move comes as DeSantis seeks re-election in November and has been mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in 2024. It mirrors campaigns by the Republican governors of Texas and Arizona to push responsibility for a record number of border arrivals to Democratic strongholds across the United States, including Washington, D.C., New York City and Chicago.
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But unlike those other destinations, Martha’s Vineyard is a small island in Massachusetts – south of Boston – and best known as a summer retreat for affluent Americans, including former President Barack Obama, a Democrat who owns a multi-million dollar vacation home there.
Mike Savoy, 58, a nurse at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, donated all the extra COVID-19 tests he had on hand to help the arriving migrants get tested.
“This is hurting people. It’s a stunt to make political points and not caring about who gets hurt. These people were told they were going to get housing and jobs and were dropped off to an island community that has limited resources,” Savoy said.
Residents are rallying to do their best to help the migrants, housing them at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, which is sometimes used as a homeless shelter in winter months. On Thursday, some of the migrants who had stayed the night at the church kicked a ball around in the sunshine. Local residents stopped by to offer money donations and children’s toys.
“I understand there’s an immigration crisis and we should all bear some of the pain until there’s a coherent policy. But to do an unannounced trip is cruel.”
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker said in a statement that the state has many resources to assist migrants and is “working with all partners involved to make sure those resources are available,” adding that his administration would set up temporary shelter and humanitarian services at Joint Base Cape Cod.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Thursday that Republican governors were using migrants as “political pawns.”
DeSantis first raised the idea of sending migrants to the island late last year. He also suggested at the time that he could send migrants to Delaware, the home state of U.S. President Joe Biden, a Democrat whose immigration policies DeSantis and other Republicans oppose.
Reuters polling shows that immigration is a motivating issue for Republicans and the party has sought to draw attention to it in races across the country. read more
The Florida legislature appropriated $12 million to transport migrants from the state to other locations in its most recent session, DeSantis spokesperson Taryn Fenske said in a statement.
“States like Massachusetts, New York, and California will better facilitate the care of these individuals who they have invited into our country,” Fenske said.
U.S. border agents have made 1.8 million migrant arrests at the U.S.-Mexico border this fiscal year, which began last October. But many have repeatedly crossed and are quickly expelled to Mexico or other countries under a public health rule implemented in 2020 to curb the spread of COVID.
Hundreds of thousands of migrants who cannot be expelled — including many Cubans, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans — because Mexico will not accept them, or because they have been granted exceptions to the expulsion order and are allowed into the United States to pursue their asylum claims. read more
Many migrants who arrive at the border and are released from U.S. custody in border states seek to move to different states to join relatives, or find jobs. They have to check in with immigration authorities or attend court hearings to obtain legal status in the United States.
Oren Sellstrom, a civil rights attorney in Boston, said pro bono attorneys and social service providers were mobilizing to help the migrants on Martha’s Vineyard.
DeSantis said in a news conference on Thursday that Biden “has refused to lift a finger” to secure the border.
“We’ve worked on innovative ways to be able to protect the state of Florida from the impact of Biden’s border policies,” he said without directly referring to the flights.
The movement of migrants from Florida to Massachusetts raises a host of legal concerns including what information Florida officials relayed to the migrants before they boarded airplanes and whether they were coerced, immigration law expert Pratheepan Gulasekaram of Santa Clara University School of Law told Reuters.
“Were they fully informed about what was happening? Were they misled?” he said. “Those are the questions that are relevant.”
Governor of Texas Greg Abbott is another Republican facing re-election in November, and has bused more than 10,000 migrants from his state to Washington, D.C., New York City and Chicago since April.
Texas authorities typically coordinate bus arrivals with volunteers in Washington who come to the city’s central bus station and offer food and clothing and medical screenings.
On Thursday morning, however, two buses from Texas dropped migrants off in a part of the city near Vice President Kamala Harris’ official residence with no warning, according to one volunteer Ashley Tjhung.
White House Press Secretary Pierre criticized the drop-offs.
“The fact that Fox News and not (Department of Homeland Security), the city or local NGOs were alerted about a plan to leave migrants, including children, on the side of a busy DC street makes clear that this is just a cruel, premeditated political stunt,” she said at news conference.
Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
(This story refiles to fix spacing error in second paragraph)
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Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta and Ted Hesson in Washington; Additional reporting by Rajesh Kumar Singh in Chicago, Mike Scarcella in Washington and Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Editing by Mica Rosenberg and Aurora Ellis
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